‘Private benefit’ versus ‘public good’

Previous coverage that I’ve seen of a plan to merge six universities in Pennsylvania has emphasized the administrative side[1] and I honestly don’t see the value of fragmented systems, particularly with libraries, which are on their own trying to afford peer-reviewed journal subscriptions.[2]

I have little sympathy for administrators. Their work may be necessary, managing the nuts and bolts of a functioning university, but they are honored and paid much too much. More of that money needs to be going into research and education. More of that honor should be bestowed on researchers who give us something to teach.

The trouble is that it isn’t just a merger that’s happening at the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE). Professors are getting laid off. And administration is adding insult to injury:[3]

I’m really tired of witnessing the chancellor and upper management referring to my husband [Eddie Severn] as being — and I’m quoting — ‘Excess teaching capacity, part of a headcount reduction and a faculty member needing to be shed to right size the university and the PASSHE system.’[4]

There are a couple of issues here. First, what we’re seeing is that previously-and-still-relatively-privileged professors are receiving the treatment that other workers have faced since the 1970s. They aren’t reacting well and no one should be expected to.

But second, the budget cuts that PASSHE faces[5] are a part of a much larger picture. I saw the same thing happening in California, particularly with the California State University system (I earned my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from CSU East Bay in Hayward), where the state legislature is considerably less anti-intellectual. We have, as a society, decided that education is a private benefit, strictly oriented to individual career success, rather than a public good, preparing an educated citizenry capable of intelligently addressing the issues of the day[6] and of contributing to our culture.

It’s too easy, much too easy, to look at Eddie Severn, whose wife spoke out against the PASSHE cuts in the above quotation, as “just” a music teacher. “He taught classes such as jazz and brass ensemble conducting and has expertise in such areas as trumpet and jazz performance, jazz theory and ear training.”[7]

In this, we have pitted the ‘private benefit’ against the public good and used that alleged private benefit, both 1) to rationalize increased emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM); and 2) to devalue the public good, defunding the social sciences and the humanities.

Yes, in a capitalist society, people need to be able to earn a living. And I do not mean to devalue STEM; I type this into a computer, my cell phone is close at hand, and I have a new car with the latest safety technology on order. But as we have dived headlong in this direction, the problems that the social sciences are meant to address have grown worse, in part because to solve those problems would go against elite interests.[8] And as we lay Severn off, we have lost a bit of what it is to be human.

  1. [1]Deb Erdley, “Pa. State System moves ahead with mergers of 6 universities, including California, Clarion, Edinboro,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, April 28, 2021, https://triblive.com/news/pennsylvania/pa-moves-ahead-on-merger-of-6-universities-including-california-clarion-and-edinboro/; Lee Gardner, “A System Leader Sells His Vision for Remaking Public Higher Ed,” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 21, 2021, https://www.chronicle.com/article/a-system-leader-sells-his-vision-for-remaking-public-higher-ed
  2. [2]David Benfell, “The ideology of ‘competition’ and higher education,” Not Housebroken, April 28, 2021, https://disunitedstates.org/2021/04/22/the-ideology-of-competition-and-higher-education/
  3. [3]Bill Schackner, “Petitions couldn’t save a popular Pennsylvania state university music professor’s job, so his wife is speaking out,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 4, 2021, https://www.post-gazette.com/news/education/2021/06/04/State-System-of-Higher-Education-Greenstein-APSCUF-faculty-union-jobs-teaching-Pennsylvania-colleges/stories/202106040078
  4. [4]Vivian Severn, quoted in Bill Schackner, “Petitions couldn’t save a popular Pennsylvania state university music professor’s job, so his wife is speaking out,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 4, 2021, https://www.post-gazette.com/news/education/2021/06/04/State-System-of-Higher-Education-Greenstein-APSCUF-faculty-union-jobs-teaching-Pennsylvania-colleges/stories/202106040078
  5. [5]Deb Erdley, “Pa. State System moves ahead with mergers of 6 universities, including California, Clarion, Edinboro,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, April 28, 2021, https://triblive.com/news/pennsylvania/pa-moves-ahead-on-merger-of-6-universities-including-california-clarion-and-edinboro/; Lee Gardner, “A System Leader Sells His Vision for Remaking Public Higher Ed,” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 21, 2021, https://www.chronicle.com/article/a-system-leader-sells-his-vision-for-remaking-public-higher-ed; Bill Schackner, “Petitions couldn’t save a popular Pennsylvania state university music professor’s job, so his wife is speaking out,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 4, 2021, https://www.post-gazette.com/news/education/2021/06/04/State-System-of-Higher-Education-Greenstein-APSCUF-faculty-union-jobs-teaching-Pennsylvania-colleges/stories/202106040078
  6. [6]David Benfell, “Education for robots,” Not Housebroken, August 30, 2016, https://disunitedstates.org/2016/08/30/education-for-robots/
  7. [7]Bill Schackner, “Petitions couldn’t save a popular Pennsylvania state university music professor’s job, so his wife is speaking out,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 4, 2021, https://www.post-gazette.com/news/education/2021/06/04/State-System-of-Higher-Education-Greenstein-APSCUF-faculty-union-jobs-teaching-Pennsylvania-colleges/stories/202106040078
  8. [8]David Benfell, “We ‘need to know how it works,’” Not Housebroken, March 19, 2012, https://disunitedstates.org/2012/03/19/we-need-to-know-how-it-works/; David Benfell, “Factory farmed humans,” Not Housebroken, May 17, 2021, https://disunitedstates.org/2021/05/17/factory-farmed-humans/; David Benfell, “About that alleged ‘labor shortage,’” Not Housebroken, June 4, 2021, https://disunitedstates.org/2021/05/09/about-that-alleged-labor-shortage/; David Benfell, “A piper needs paying,” Not Housebroken, June 4, 2021, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/12/19/a-piper-needs-paying/

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